Benefield: Competitive mountain biking not a typical high school sport

The varsity boys take off on their mountain bikes during the NorCal High School Cycling League's Five Spring Farm Round Up, Saturday, April 11, 2015. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

The varsity boys take off on their mountain bikes during the NorCal High School Cycling League’s Five Spring Farm Round Up, Saturday, April 11, 2015. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)



Not in too many prep sports will you find a yeti suit and a banana costume as part of the team uniform.

But mountain biking is not like too many other prep sports. And that’s the way they like it.

“Being out on the trail, in the open, not really worrying about anything and going super fast, that is the best thing ever,” said Nick Tribble, a senior at Casa Grande High School and a four-year member of the Gauchos mountain bike squad.

He’s also a part-time banana.

Before Tribble suits up for his varsity boys races, he’s taken to donning a banana suit and running around with a buddy in a yeti costume and another in gorilla garb and cheering on other riders. Apparently, this takes the edge off.

“Races can be really stressful,” said Tribble, Casa’s fastest racer.

“Having some kid in a banana costume and a yeti costume really lightens the mood,” he said. “I get a lot of people thanking us.”

Welcome to prep mountain bike racing, where the speeds are fast and the competition robust, but the mood can be decidedly light.

“Everyone is very supportive,” said Tami Cramer, who with her husband, Jeff, coaches both the Kelseyville and Clear Lake high school teams. “It’s not like going to a basketball game where you see parents going at it.”

Maybe it’s that community feeling, maybe it’s the party vibe at races or maybe it’s the sheer awesomeness of riding bikes on trails, but prep mountain biking is booming in popularity despite its status as a club sport.

The 15-year-old NorCal High School Cycling League that stretches from Fresno in the south to Humboldt in the north is so big — 73 teams and approximately 900 student-athletes — that organizers broke it into two conferences. It takes two days to stage enough races to accommodate all of the competitors.

(See more photos)

Last weekend, hundreds of racers converged on Five Springs Farm in Petaluma for two days of racing in 11 categories from freshman to varsity.

“We have been growing at 20 percent for the last five years, every year,” said Vanessa Hauswald, executive director of the league. “I feel like cycling, in the past few years, went from an anomaly or outlier of a sport and now it’s become more of a mainstream thing.”

Just not so mainstream that a yeti costume wouldn’t fit in.

Coaches and riders talk of the camaraderie of the sport — not only in practices, but at races. Riders are as likely to focus on beating their own best times as they are a rival.

But that’s not to say kids don’t want to win.

“They are turning themselves inside out. We tell them it doesn’t get any easier, you are just getting faster,” said Miguel Crawford, co-coach of El Molino’s mountain bike team. “It’s thrilling afterward, but it’s so hard. I tell the kids, ‘It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.’ ”

Mountain biking, despite its growing popularity in prep circles, is still a club sport, which means coaches aren’t paid, athletes don’t get varsity letters for participating or excused from class for away races, and racers largely have to come up with their own gear and transportation.

But there is an upside.

They can hold races on Sundays. They can camp for out-of-town races. They can run a season well longer than that of “official” spring sports. And there are fewer layers of school bureaucracy.

Area coaches are mixed on whether they’d like to see the sport become official.

But all agreed that to be seen as equal to other teams would be nice — some acknowledgment of what kind of effort and time these athletes are putting in wearing their school colors.

“I’ve been a mountain bike racer since I was 13. I wish I had the opportunity to race on a school-supported team when I was that age,” said Kevin Gambini, who coaches not only the Maria Carrillo High squad but the so-called A-Team, a composite team made up of racers from a variety of schools including Santa Rosa and Montgomery that don’t have enough participants to field a full roster.

“It’s basically just being supported by your peers and having people be aware of what you are doing,” Gambini said.

Many coaches said they are left cobbling together support systems — mainly from the cycling community. Insurance is typically offered through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. Bike shops and major bike makers have provided bikes to the league and to schools so coaches can offer seasonal loaners. But entry to the league’s five races typically cost $50 a pop and registration for the season is another $50. And athletes have to purchase their own uniforms.

“It’s not a cheap sport to get into,” said Bryan Davis, who coaches the Healdsburg Hounds. “It’s not ‘Pick up some running shoes and there you are.’ ”

The NorCal league has a “robust” scholarship program, Hauswald says. And veteran coaches like Casa’s Scot Wigert have a classroom closet full of donated shorts, jerseys, vests, arm warmers and extras that can be perks to a young rider.

“There is nothing official, but the bike community is pretty supportive,” he said. “They want kids to ride.”

And coaches gush about the welcoming aspect of mountain biking. A girl who is rocket fast can still suit up next to the guy who is just getting the feel for the trails.

“If you come to practice, you race,” Hauswald said. “There are not bench warmers. There are not cuts. Kids can come to it at really all levels and have success.”

El Molino’s Crawford said it has the benefits of both a team sport and an individual endeavor.

“Kids write down their goals for the season,” he said. “For some kids, it’s learn what it’s all about, others it’s placing.

Being a teacher, it’s about the process, the little victories along the way.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

  • Mike Vandeman

    Let me just add, I really love children, especially young boys. I’m a member of NAMBLA, or North American Man Boy Love Association. Check out for more information

  • Mike Vandeman

    “Being out on the trail, in the open, not really worrying about anything and going super fast, that is the best thing ever,” said Nick Tribble, a senior at Casa Grande High School and a four-year member of the Gauchos mountain bike squad.

    That says it all. It wouldn’t be so bad if mountain biking were confined to private race tracks. Instead, mountain bikers insist on doing it on public lands, with no regard for wildlife or other people.

    Mountain bikers claim to care about the environment, but not one of them used public transit to get to the race. They came in about 300 cars, trucks, and vans, and drove an average of about 100 miles, round trip. That is equivalent to driving a car around the Earth!

    Introducing children to mountain biking is CRIMINAL. Mountain biking, besides being expensive and very environmentally destructive, is extremely dangerous. Recently a 12-year-old girl DIED during her very first mountain biking lesson! Serious accidents and even deaths are commonplace. Truth be told, mountain bikers want to introduce kids to mountain biking because (1) they want more people to help them lobby to open our precious natural areas to mountain biking and (2) children are too naive to understand and object to this activity. For 500+ examples of serious accidents and deaths caused by mountain biking, see

    Bicycles should not be allowed in any natural area. They are inanimate objects and have no rights. There is also no right to mountain bike. That was settled in federal court in 1996: . It’s dishonest of mountain bikers to say that they don’t have access to trails closed to bikes. They have EXACTLY the same access as everyone else — ON FOOT! Why isn’t that good enough for mountain bikers? They are all capable of walking….

    A favorite myth of mountain bikers is that mountain biking is no more harmful to wildlife, people, and the environment than hiking, and that science supports that view. Of course, it’s not true. To settle the matter once and for all, I read all of the research they cited, and wrote a review of the research on mountain biking impacts (see ). I found that of the seven studies they cited, (1) all were written by mountain bikers, and (2) in every case, the authors misinterpreted their own data, in order to come to the conclusion that they favored. They also studiously avoided mentioning another scientific study (Wisdom et al) which did not favor mountain biking, and came to the opposite conclusions.

    Those were all experimental studies. Two other studies (by White et al and by Jeff Marion) used a survey design, which is inherently incapable of answering that question (comparing hiking with mountain biking). I only mention them because mountain bikers often cite them, but scientifically, they are worthless.

    Mountain biking accelerates erosion, creates V-shaped ruts, kills small animals and plants on and next to the trail, drives wildlife and other trail users out of the area, and, worst of all, teaches kids that the rough treatment of nature is okay (it’s NOT!). What’s good about THAT?

    For more information: .